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Government accountability

“First Nations members want assurances that (band money) isn’t being used to benefit a small number of people. We believe that all First Nations have a right to access this information.”

— Federal Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan

Though we are forced to agree that Canada’s First Nations chiefs and councils should be more publicly accountable, especially to their band members, we suggest the federal government should practise what it preaches.

Postmedia News reported that on Wednesday the federal Conservatives decided to put an end to debate over Bill C-27, legislation that would see funding pulled from bands that don’t publish councillor salaries and audited financial statements online.

Bill C-27, also known as the First Nations Financial Transparency Act, has been panned by many aboriginal leaders, including the Assembly of First Nations, saying the legislation was based on “misinformation” and a lack of understanding for the financial situations facing many Canadian First Nations.

“Now you have a few corrupt chiefs across Canada and suddenly we’re all crooks,” said Lloyd Phillips, who sits on the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake near Montreal. “This is like crushing a flea with a hammer, it’s excessive and unnecessary.”

This legislation follows the publication of First Nation financial statements obtained by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation through an access to information request made in 2009. In 2010, as the Toronto Star reports, the federation received about 20 pages of records that outlined the “salary” and “honorarium” amounts paid to chiefs across the country. Names of the chiefs and the First Nations they represented were withheld.

According to the data, at least 30 chiefs were paid more than the provincial premiers, with the highest paid chief making a tax-free salary of $247,100 — the taxable equivalent of about $425,000 in 2008-09.

In Manitoba, the province’s 64 First Nations chiefs made an average of $86,932 in 2009, with the highest-paid chief making $206,381, and the lowest a mere $20,723, when including base salaries and allocated travel expenses in the total. Approximately 20 chiefs were paid more than $100,000.

As we have said before on this page, these wages appear shockingly high to the average taxpayer, and certainly there is an argument to be made against having chiefs and councillors making high wages when the reserves they operate are strapped for cash. Thus, transparency should be a matter of fact, not choice.

And while First Nation chiefs and councillors suggest that the federal government’s handling of this amounts to a colonial entity treating them like children, there is no question that reserve governments are far less accountable to their people than they could or should be.

But there are occasions when the right decision can still be politically and even morally incorrect when the motives behind it appear questionable. And in this case, it seems Bill C-27 is more a bid to appeal to cranky Canadian taxpayers who have a misinformed resentment regarding First Nation financing, rather than a collaborative attempt with the AFN to improve band accountability.

And when it comes to government accountability, the Conservative government does not hold the moral high ground. Earlier this week, for example, The Canadian Press reported that Canada’s Parliamentary Budget Officer, Kevin Page, felt compelled to take the Harper government to court over its refusal to turn over information about austerity measures.

For months, Page has complained that several government departments have not been forthcoming with information on budget cuts, staff reductions and impacts on services, in spite of repeated requests.

How can the federal Tories demand accountability from First Nations, when they themselves have failed to live up to the same standards?

Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition November 23, 2012

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“First Nations members want assurances that (band money) isn’t being used to benefit a small number of people. We believe that all First Nations have a right to access this information.”

— Federal Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan

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“First Nations members want assurances that (band money) isn’t being used to benefit a small number of people. We believe that all First Nations have a right to access this information.”

— Federal Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan

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